All posts by Richard L. Smith

The Doctrine of Sola Scriptura Emerged within a Competitive Environment

The idea of scripture that emerged among the Reformers occurred in competition with the medieval Catholic church’s teaching about the magisterium and the Pope’s claim to ultimate authority in all of life and thought. The doctrine of scripture alone was inherently polemical and conceptually central to Protestantism.

But, in reality, the concept of scripture alone emerged at the very beginning in Genesis 1–2, when God created the world by his word alone. The battle of authority, however, appeared in Genesis 3, when sin first emerged.

Genesis 3 indicates that serpent does not listen to God. He does not affirm sola scriptura. In fact, he is totally opposed to the idea. All his mental energy is dedicated to hiding the truth (John 8:44). He does not want us to listen to God. Remember what Paul told us, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4).

In Genesis 3:17, God explained the massive impact of Satan’s guile, as well as Adam and Eve’s sin. Adam sinned because he listened to Eve. She sinned because she listened to the serpent. The snake sinned because he misrepresented God and introduced skepticism about God’s instructions. Adam and Eve did not heed God’s command and instead paid attention to the devil. Failing to listen to God is the main problem in Genesis 3, which is the opposite of sola scriptura.

This issue appears all the time in the Bible. There are many competitors with God’s revelation, for instance: the worldviews of Babel, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon in the Old Testament; and in the New Testament, Pax Romana, Stoicism, and mysticism. This dilemma also appears as obedience versus disobedience, folly versus wisdom, true versus false prophets, and truth versus heresy.

Also, the book of Proverbs teaches that everyone hears conflicting voices representing contrasting worldviews. Each says, “Listen to me!” But behind the dissonance of daily existence, only two speakers call out to mankind: Folly and Wisdom (Satan and God). This battle for allegiance is fought in the private and public realms, as each wants to capture individual minds and imaginations. Both promote their perspectives within the realm of ideas. Both want to influence the public sphere. And both propose lifestyles corresponding to their worldviews.

Let us remember that the idea of sola scriptura appeared from the very beginning, whereas the doctrine of sola scriptura emerged within a contested theological environment much later in history.

Today, however, the competition is just as fierce. Due to the ubiquity of social media, we hear thousands of voices every day telling us not to listen to God and to deny the doctrine of scripture alone. Sola scriptura, therefore, is an inherently polemical concept and implies intellectual rivalry. For this reason, it is crucial to the life and thought of the church to practice the doctrine of scripture alone.

 

Sola Scriptura: Revelation Is Communication

When we acknowledge sola scriptura, we affirm several important truths about the mind, about God, human beings, and the world we live in.

First, Scripture is an act of communication, and this implies intelligence. Intelligence requires a brain or mind. We learn from the Bible that God is a thinker. He understands everything. He interprets and evaluates all things within his realm. God is the standard and criterion for all thought and behavior, which means sola scriptura.

God is the supremely intelligent king. He is also the architect, econo­mist, and philosopher of creation. He is the ontological expert in each of these fields—and any other we might name. He is our transcendent genius, virtuoso, and mastermind. He is the ultimate specialist of every kind of knowledge. He understands in depth and breadth each realm of experience in every language and at each level of development.

Second, God created a world that is understandable and subject to analysis. It is manageable and capable of development. The transcendent scientist, mathematician, and artisan designed and constructed it. In fact, the world was made for thinkers, for a great mind created it. It is the product of a knowing God and a God who is knowable.

Third, the Bible shows that human beings are created in his image. He is a thinker and so are we. We can understand his revelation to us. Indeed, God made sentient be­ings with intellectual curiosity, imagination, and an aspiration for wisdom. Adam and Eve’s stewardship, for instance, was inconceivable without using the cognitive abilities God gave to and patterned for them. In the same way, we must develop and use our intellectual abilities to serve God and bless others.

The Bible teaches that Adam and Eve were commissioned in Genesis 1:26 to imitate the creator as apprentice rulers, builders, benefactors, and thinkers. For this reason, perhaps the greatest gift God gave us as the image of God is our mind, our self-consciousness.

Our doctrine of scripture, therefore, presumes that we possess the intellectual capacity to hear and understand revelation. This assumes that the divine communicator exists and is not silent. This doctrine also presumes that we should listen and obey.

Indeed, we must learn from God to be good stewards, for he is the divine teacher. The whole world and we ourselves are the classroom. We must listen to his voice in creation and especially through scripture―which implies sola scriptura.

Sola Scriptura: Our Ultimate Authority

Our concept of scripture affirms that the Bible is the supreme standard of knowledge. It tells us what to think, but also how to think, why, and when. It provides the norms for life, thought, and faith. It teaches wisdom to navigate the complexities of existence.

The Bible is revelation from God. It is his voice speaking to us. It demands our full attention. It requires our complete obedience. The Bible is the revelation of the mind of God with respect to creation. It tells what is real and how to respond.

Consider this brief illustration. In the Old Testament, the central creedal affirmation is called the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4–5. It says, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

The Shema is an example of the indicative-imperative dynamic in the Bible. There are three parts of this formula: an indicative statement, which is a statement of truth or fact; a literal or logically implied “therefore,” which points to the proper response; and then the answer, which is an application or command.

In this case, the indicative is found in verse 4, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The imperative is verse 5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

The Shema tells us what reality consists of: an absolute, transcendent, sovereign creator, the Lord our God, and that he is God alone. There is no other. And there is a relationship between the creator and creature: a Lord-servant covenant. This means that we must devote all our being to his honor and service, which he communicates to us through the Bible.

In this passage, therefore, we are told that the proper response to God is total devotion in thought, desire, and behavior. This is an important implication of sola scriptura. God communicates to us with authority, and we must listen and obey because of who he is (creator) and what we are (servants).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solo Scriptura: “Listen to the Voice of God”

When Israel was about to enter the promised land, Moses taught them the most important lesson for any human being to learn. This is the concept of sola scriptura.

Listen to what Deuteronomy 8:3 says, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Consider three important lessons in this verse. First, the generic word for human beings, “man,” indicates that this is a lesson not just for Israel or for the church, but mankind in general. God declares to all people at all times, “Listen to me. I am your creator and Lord.” This is God’s affirmation of solo scriptura to the whole human race, regardless of their religious outlook.

Second, the term “live” has two meanings. It refers to physical existence, such as our need for food, water, shelter, and economic power. But it also refers to our quality of life, signifying peace or Shalom, the ability to flourish and prosper. This means that human beings will truly thrive only when they hear and obey the voice of God speaking to them in creation and his Word (Psalms 19; 119:105, 160).

Third, throughout the Old Testament, a mind that listens to God practices sola scriptura. The Hebrew verb for “listen” is translated in three ways, depending on context: “listen to,” “hear,” or “obey.” The same verb often appears with a particular direct object, “voice” or “listen to the voice of.” The Hebrew idiom “listen to the voice of” means acknowledging a speaker with authority who expects his instructions to be followed. In Deuteronomy, “listen to the voice of the Lord” appears twenty times. Other phrases include “listen to”: “the command of the Lord,” “my words,” and “the statutes and laws.”

Just as ancient Israel was expected to use their minds and hear God’s voice, we in the church must think and listen also. Remember what God said about Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen one; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35). Jesus, of course, is our model for practicing sola scriptura (Luke 2:46).

Clearly, we must pay attention to God’s instruction and learn to understand it. Indeed, the doctrine of sola scriptura implies that we are perpetual students. Always learning. Always curious to learn more about God, his world, his word, and his plan of redemption. To put it another way, sola scriptura implies semper reformada, which means “aways reforming,” “always learning,” “always repenting,” as we listen to the voice of God’s alone.

 

 

 

 

IGNORANCE OR INSIGHT?

The importance of insight―knowing the truth about reality and oneself―is universal, present in very culture, worldview, and religion. Leyland Ryken describes “archetypal plot motifs” that occur universally (Words of Delight, 49), such as “the movement from ignorance to epiphany” (insight). For example, the following is a Hindu parable about an adult tiger who encounters an orphaned tiger cub eating grass among the sheep:

One day the Bengal man-eater comes stalking through the woods. He has just eaten a gazelle for breakfast, but he is always hungry. His spring is impeccable. The goats all flee—except for the wanna-be goat. The tiger inspects the cub in astonishment. “What are you doing here?” “Maaaaah,” bleats the wanna-be goat. “We don’t bleat,” growls the man-eater. Confused, the cub nibbles grass. “And we do not eat grass!” roars the man-eater. “We are not vegetarians!” The tiger seizes the cub by the scruff of the neck and carries him to a reflecting pool, to show him his true face. When the wanna-be goat sees his true face, he squeals in terror.

Enraged and disgusted, the man-eater grabs the cub and drags him back to his lair, where he is hoarding the remains of the gazelle he had for breakfast. He pries open the cub’s jaw and forces down some of the raw meat. As the blood trickles down the wanna-be goat’s gullet, he opens his jaws. And he roars. Whereupon the tiger says, “Now that you know who you are, we can begin to discuss how you ought to behave.”

The motif of transformation, from ignorance to insight, is a recurring theme in popular film as well. The first “Matrix” movie concerns the initiation of Neo, who discovers that the human race is totally manipulated by computers. What he thought was real was only an illusion, created to enslave mankind. The “Truman Show” is about coming to know that reality, as it presents itself, is a total façade, designed to entertain others and sell products. “The Island” depicts human clones, brainwashed to embrace an illusion, but whose only purpose is the provision of body parts for others.

Why is “the movement from ignorance to epiphany” ubiquitous? Why is insight about reality so important? Why should we know the truth about God, the world, and ourselves? Because God created the world as a school. Every aspect of creation, the natural world, ourselves, and our relations are revelatory. All facts speak to us. Everything, every encounter, and everyone is an invitation to think and learn.

God, the great teacher, created human beings as his pupils―in his image. We are homo discens, the being who learns. Humans were designed for intellectual curiosity and insight. We were created to serve God and mankind with our minds.

Dru Johnson in his book, Biblical Knowing (p. xv), says: “The Christian scriptures could be theologically described as beginning and ending with an epistemological outlook.” He added: “The first episode of humanity’s activity centers on the knowledge of good and evil. The final stage of humanity is pictured by Jeremiah as a universally prophetic and knowing society (Jer 31:34).”

Knowing, understanding, wisdom, and insight, in other words, are crucial features of the world as God created it.

The movement from ignorance to insight is a central feature of the Bible. Consider these two passages, for example:

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” (Mark 12:28–30)

Please note that the most important commandment includes learning and loving God with the mind.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:2)

Our goal as followers of Jesus Christ is to know God and to make him known. This involves a process of diligent study, moving from ignorance and illusion to epiphany and insight. Or to paraphrase the last sentence of the Hindu parable, our transformation means: “Now that you know who you are, we can begin to discuss how you ought to think!” As Christians, we must stop consuming intellectual “milk” and eat the “meat” of God’s word (Heb 5:12–14). We should enroll in God’s school and seek insight.

 

 

 

 

 

“The Heart Has Its Reasons”

In the 17th century, Blaise Pascal, renowned mathematician, and Christian intellectual, disputed with the rationalistic apologists of his time, such as René Descartes. Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not” and “We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart.”

Pascal did not claim that belief in God or faith in Jesus Christ is against reason or that it is irrational and anti-intellectual. He was, rather, articulating a more balanced and biblical description about how belief operates. Bill Edgar wrote, “Reason is good and necessary as long as it knows how to submit to the truth. To do that, it needs the heart’s right disposition. The heart, as Pascal puts it, does have its reasons. But a system of rationalization alone will never lead to God” (Reasons of the Heart: Rediscovering Christian Persuasion, 14).

Pascal understood that human beings are indeed complex creatures. We act and believe for both rational and emotional reasons. We disbelieve or embrace faith for often contradictory motives. Phenomenologically, Tim Keller articulates three factors that determine the intellectual plausibility and existential credibility of faith: intellectual reasons, interpreted personal experience, and social conditioning. People tend to believe if they have good intellectual reasons, personal experience that does not psychologically preclude trust in God, and a supportive community open to or tolerant of a worldview that deviates from the accepted “group think.”

Further, Pascal understood, as did Paul before him, that faith is not simply concerned with rationality or emotion, but motive. According to Romans 1:19–23, unbelievers already know God, but they do not demonstrate the proper spiritual and ethical response to the knowledge they have. The question is not whether humans have a relationship with God or whether or not they have knowledge of God, but what manner of relationship and knowledge he/she already has―obedient or disobedient, acknowledgment or suppression of the truth. Sadly, sinners are highly motivated to deny God’s existence or goodness, for “the heart has its reasons.”

As an example, consider someone who claims to be an atheist but whose motive for disbelief is rooted in a negative personal or communal experience. Basically, this objection claims that God has misbehaved. He has been unfair or unjust. He is not good, so he does not merit affection, worship, obedience or faith. Sometimes, the atheist has experienced trauma in his/her life. Something happened which so offended the conscience that, in effect, they cannot forgive God for permitting this or that evil to happen.

In such cases, often the best response is empathy and a willingness to listen. Sometimes, it is wise to share your testimony or experience with suffering. It is useful, also, to probe their religious history and ask questions like: When did you stop believing? Why? What happened? How do you feel about that decision now? How is your atheism working out for you in everyday experience? Why do you hold your atheism so dearly?

Or you might ask the unbeliever to consider God’s witness in their lives through the “riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience” (Acts 14:17), despite their painful experience. Assist them to think about what they should be thankful for. As Paul said, “For he did good by________?” or “He satisfied your hearts with________?” Explore how God’s kindness is designed to lead them to repentance (Rom 2:4). Talk about the implications of the biblical view of God: Does it make sense to use (or presume on) his grace to live in sin and rebellion (Rom 2:4–5)? Or is it wiser to “honor him as God” and “give thanks” (Rom 1:21)?

Finally, it is important to listen much more than we speak. (There is a reason God gave us two ears and only one mouth!) Ask lots of questions and listen carefully. Pray that the Spirit leads  and gives discernment about how to proceed. Look for the dissonances in your neighbor’s soul, between what they really know and what they actually do or say. Many times, intellectual arguments and worldview are simply a mask to protect a soul embittered by suffering―their own sin or damage done to them through the sins of others.

“The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”

Dissonance

I read an interesting book The Faithful Artist: A Vision for Evangelicalism and the Arts by Cameron J. Anderson. In the Introduction, he explained the dissonance he felt between his church and his passion for art. He described the discord as “the awkward convergence of my evangelical and my secular training” (p. 4). Whereas he entered the study of the visual arts “expectant, believing that painting, sculptures, prints, drawing and photographs could cast fresh light on deeper things” (p. 1), his Christian community manifested “serious misgivings about the legitimacy of art as a vocational endeavor” or even viewed his calling as “a capitulation to carnal desire” (p. 4).

In hindsight, Cameron explained that there were “three nearly insurmountable barriers” (p. 2) to a vocation in the visual arts. The first was “the absence of a mentor.” He did not have a mature and empathetic Christian advocate to guide him. As a result, he wrote, “I lacked a ready apologetic . . . for how or what such an enterprise might contribute to the church and its mission” (pp. 2-3, his emphasis). The second obstacle was his “church’s disregard for the visual arts,” which hovered between “ambivalence and hostility” (p. 3), as well as its “palpable distain for modern art” (p. 3). “To underscore their reservations,” he wrote, “they relied on shoddy biblical exegesis, false dichotomies and the anecdote of scandal” (p. 5). And, the third was “the art world’s hostility to religious belief,” due to its secular, modern, and postmodern worldview.

I suspect that the dissonance that Cameron experienced with his calling is parallel to what many Christians experience in their churches today (ages 20–40 especially). Many have told me about their “awkward convergence” of evangelical conviction and secular training or profession. Most cannot easily reconcile what they hear in church with what they experience in the world. Some have encountered the “church’s disregard,” its “palpable distain,” “ambivalence and hostility,” or sometimes even “shoddy biblical exegesis” regarding objections to their profession or aspiration to serve God in the public square. Some pastors express “serious misgivings about the legitimacy of (fill in the blank) as a vocational endeavor.”

Here are some examples (names have been changed): Matias is a university professor who struggles with the hegemony of naturalism in his faculty. Pedro strives to articulate his biblical worldview through painting. Gustavo tries hard to reconcile the Bible and biology. Pablo endeavors to integrate the biblical worldview with marketing and entrepreneurism. Jorge has a vision for Christians in politics and public policy. Silvia wonders how to integrate faith and philosophy. Martin searches for links between Christian spirituality and the materialism of his psychology faculty. Deborah feels threatened by the secular worldview propagated by the faculty of medicine.

A woman who works with young people in her church expressed her concerns after a nine-hour course I taught, “Three nights is not enough instruction. We don’t even know how to process all the information. We need more Biblical and theological study. I work with the young people and I know that they are not prepared for the university and the challenges to their faith that they will face.”

Each of these individuals often feels isolated and unsupported in their churches―spiritually and intellectually. Sometimes, their communities’ stance is even hostile, as if they were “doing the devil’s work” or engaging in “worldly” pursuits unworthy of a serious Christian. But most of the time they encounter indifference. Their religious leaders do not often integrate the biblical worldview with their cultural and intellectual context. Often, the gospel, calling, and spirituality are narrowly conceived. The intellectual aspect of God’s word and faith is overlooked. Sadly, many Christian communities do not even know the questions that many Christians face in their schools and workplaces, let alone the answers so sorely needed. Is there an evangelical spirituality for the public square and the marketplace of ideas?

What can be done about this? Consider the three barriers that Cameron mentioned.

First is the need for a mentor. Church leaders could become better listeners and more empathetic to the university students and young professionals in their midst. Learn about their questions and struggles. Support them in prayer and reflection. Become their advocates.

Second, churches should develop a robust theology of common grace and calling. Endeavor to minimize the influence of the sacred-secular distinction, because Christ is Lord over every day and all professions.

Third, programs for the study of worldview, apologetics, and theology would help prepare Christian ambassadors in the marketplace of ideas to express, explain, and defend their faith.

In these ways perhaps the dissonance between doctrine and the world, piety and profession can be reduced. Perhaps together students, professionals, and church leaders could articulate an apologetic for “how or what such an enterprise might contribute to the church and its mission.” And also in this manner make positive contributions to the common good for the glory of God.

 

JUNK FOOD FOR THE MIND

It is well known that a diet of junk food is not healthy for the body. It promotes obesity and disease. It produces listlessness and passivity. There is also, I suggest, junk food for the mind. It produces spiritual and intellectual lethargy.

Let me provide an example. A friend of mine, a pastor of many years, decided to leave the church because of ecclesiological pragmatism that stifled spiritual growth. He saw that “success” in the evangelical church merely required four aspects: a concert-feel worship service, simple practical how-to preaching on popular topics using humor with a non-confrontational challenge, a fun-clean-safe children’s ministry, and a similar teen meeting concurrent with the adult service. I wonder if you have observed a similar kind of pragmatism in your churches.

Indeed, it seems that most preaching today stresses application― ecclesiological pragmatism―and ignores the theology or biblical rationale for the application. The result is often just busyness and rules. But the real motivation for the Christian life is knowing the truth. That reality motivates us, producing transformation, creative thinking, and godly ethics.

Many Christians, I think, want to develop their minds in a distinctly Christian fashion and grow in discernment. They struggle with a sense of intellectual dissonance. They experience conflict between what they hear (or do not hear) in church and what they observe in the world. They express boredom with insipid sermons. They lament teaching that stresses “how-to” knowledge but rarely “why” or “what” thinking. They hear applications but they want more biblical rationale, more worldview.

I believe that our souls are hard-wired, so-to-speak, with something called the indicative-imperative dynamic. There are three parts of this formula: an indicative statement about an essential truth; a literal or grammatically implied “therefore” which points to the expected response; and then an application or demand.

A simple example is 1 John 4:19. “We love because he first loved us.” Most sermons today simply respond to the demand of the congregation―give us an imperative. They say, in effect: “Just tell us how to do it. Tell us how to love. Be practical. Do not bore us with teaching that forces us to think or evaluate ourselves or our culture. Do not explain to us in depth how or why God first loved us as the rationale for how and why we should love others.”

Another example is Deuteronomy 6:4–5. The indicative is expressed in verse 4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The imperative is provided in verse 5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

This passage tells us what is important in verse 4: an absolute, transcendent, sovereign creator, the Lord our God, called Yahweh Elohim, is God alone. It also indicates a relationship between this creator and his creation. God is our sovereign Lord, and we are his human servants. Because of this, he communicates with authority, and we must listen and obey. The imperative in verse 5 tells us what to do. We must devote all our being and resources to his honor and service. The proper response to God is total devotion in thought, desire, and behavior―assuming we understand in depth the indicative in verse 4.

The church needs solid teaching that includes both the imperative and the indicative, not simply intellectual fast food. As disciples, we need to learn in depth. We need mental piety. Or, as Alistair Begg comments, “When the Bible is truly taught, then the voice of God is truly heard.”

Indeed, we must hear God’s voice speaking―educating, reproving, and inspiring us through his word. Then, Lord willing, follows transformation in every area―because the truth (not spiritual junk food) will set us free to love God with our minds, to serve him, and to bless others for the sake of the gospel.

 

“DID GOD ACTUALLY SAY?”

In Genesis 3:1, the serpent said, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”

In the whole history of recorded thought the small phrase uttered by the serpent “did God actually say” is surely the most consequential. Hidden within this seemingly innocent question was a Pandora’s box full of blasphemous errors and destructive evil. “Did God actually say” conveys a host of assumptions motivated by envy, mutiny, and cynicism. The audacity and arrogance implicit in this question are difficult to imagine.

With this inquiry the snake got his proverbial “foot in the door” within Adam and Eve’s mind and heart. He inserted just enough doubt and confusion to suggest the idea that God could and should be questioned. The serpent insinuated that the creator’s perspective was skewed and in dire need of correction. Subtly, he positioned Adam and Eve to judge between himself and Yahweh Elōhîm. He asked them to heed his words instead of God’s.

The snake’s declaration: “You will not surely die” was also a blatant contradiction of God’s words in 2:17. In effect, he accused God of lying. Yahweh Elōhîm was holding back on them, the serpent argued, and withholding his greatest blessing, specifically a kind of knowing that would make them “like God.”

In addition, by utilizing the language from Gen 1:26-28 of image and likeness (“like God”) the snake urged them to re-imagine themselves apart from their creator. The serpent redefined them within his worldview by stripping the concept of the divine image from its setting in Eden. He inspired them to align themselves as the imago Satanas (image of Satan), rather than the imago Dei (image of God).

How true, then, is Paul’s depiction of mankind’s mental state: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4).